Saturday, February 26, 2005

Column on New Republic Style Pragmatism

Another Liberal Duplicity

Tibor R. Machan

The New Republic, that venerable Left of center publication, just came
out (dated February 28th) with its 90th Anniversary Issue. Its general
theme is ?To Liberalism! Embattled And Essential.?

By ?liberal? is meant here not classical liberalism, which made the case
for limited government, individual rights and the free market. No, instead
we get the corrupted sense of ?liberalism? that means making government
the caretaker of society, empowering it to regiment us about, redistribute
the wealth people create and otherwise subvert nearly all of the
principles of the original liberalism.

There is too much in this issue to cover in a column but one piece in
particular is worth discussing. Senior Editor Jonathan Chait penned it and
it?s called ?Fact Finders.? It addresses the difference between so called
conservatives and modern liberals, especially as regards the issue of
which side is wiser about the nature of government.

Basically Chait is defending a pragmatic liberalism, which is an
unprincipled approach to governing a country, one that sees no limit?for
example, principles of individual rights to, say, private property?to what
the state may do to set things right. His prime example is that among
conservatives who support Social Security reform some, the libertarians,
actually want the system abolished, even if this has to happen slowly. And
he correctly observes that the reasoning behind this hasn't much to do
with the particular superior results of such reform (vis-à-vis the
national economy, individual retirement benefits, or GNP). It has to do
with the general idea that a free society?one without a bloated public
sector-that is, one with a government of strictly limited scope?is
superior overall to one wherein government meddles in everything.

The fault Chait finds with this isn?t so much that it?s wrongheaded but
that it is, as he dubs it, an a priori rather than pragmatic approach to
public policy matters. He is a follower of Jeremy Bentham, who argued that
?there is no right which, when the abolition of it is advantageous to
society, should not be abolished,? as if ?advantageous to society? where a
piece of cake to spell out.

Chait, sadly, caricatures the libertarian?s ?a priori? approach, making
it seem like a dumb-stubborn, mindless embrace of the free society. He
quotes Milton Friedman, quite out of context, saying that ?freedom in
economic arrangements is itself a component of freedom broadly understood,
so economic freedom is an end in itself,? as if this meant ?Economic
freedom, come hell or high water.? In fact, Friedman and most libertarians
champion principles of freedom because history shows them that when upheld
in a society, they are, in the main, better for purposes of reaching
desirable goals than are the methods involving coercion.

Principles of political economy, not unlike principles in engineering and
medicine, are what one comes to learn to be general guidelines of action
based on extensive study, on empirical and/or thought experimentation, and
so forth, not any kind of blind commitments. But let that go for a moment.
Pragmatists don?t realize that pragmatism itself is a general approach and
relies on its soundness based on what we have learned from similar studies.

What is interesting in Chait's essay is that no mention is made of how
most modern liberals are themselves "a priori" supporters of various civil
libertarian ideas, such as freedom of speech, due process in the criminal
law, fairness in the administration of the law, etc. Here it is
conservatives who have been more pragmatic?if prior restraint works, let's
use it; if giving up habeas corpus for a while achieves greater security,
go for it; if censorship achieves some good, it's fine, etc. Modern
liberals, however, have, in the main, opposed this?that is, after all,
what the ACLU is all about.

I wonder why Chait fails to discuss this internal conflict within modern
liberalism and, indeed, within conservatism?why is pragmatism so good when
it comes to some policies but should be avoided when it comes to others?
At least libertarians tend to have a coherent approach?they see liberty as
a good idea across the board, whatever projects people embark upon. They
trust the lessons they discern from history and the study of human nature,
namely, that free men and women will deal with problems better than those
who are regimented about by others.

Chait hasn?t, nor have others in The New Republic, managed to challenge
this truly principled (?a priori?) approach in the slightest, and for good
reason?it is, after all, the stance of all of the practical sciences in
which general principles are relied upon to guide future actions, leaving
changes to be made only once the principles have been shown to require

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